Knowing many of the customs of the social lives of the Jews helps us to better understand how they lived their personal lives. If one looked up and down one of the streets of a town in Galilee or Judaea, the houses would seem to differ in size and elegance. They would range from a small cottage which would be only 8 or 10 yards square, to a mansion that might be two or more stories high embellished by rows of pillars and architectural adornments.
The more middle-class dwellings were built of brick or stone – not marble – with the walls simply white-washed or covered with some neutral tint. A wide staircase led from the outside straight up to the flat roof, which sloped downward a little so that the rain could roll off easily to flow through pipes into the cistern below so that all the water could be caught. There was not much rainfall and water was very precious. The roof was paved with brick, stone, or other hard substance and surrounded by a balustrade (wall), which according to Jewish law had to be at least 3 feet high, and strong enough to bear the weight of a person. The roof of the dwelling was much like another room in that many times they slept there when it was hot. It was the coolest, airiest, and the stillest place. Many conversations were carried on from neighbor to neighbor on the rooftops. A person would go there for solitude or quiet thinking, or just to watch what was going on in the rest of the city.
They generally built a guest room on top of the roof so that a guest could come and go as he pleased without disturbing the rest of the family. At the Feast of the Tabernacles, often “leafy booths” were built on top of the houses and they slept and dwelt in them so that they could remember the pilgrimage of their people in the wilderness. Many of the houses also had stairs that led from the roof into the house.
If a visitor approached from the street, he would either pass through a large outer court, or else come straight to the porch of the house. Here the door opened into the inner court, which sometimes was shared by several families. A porter opened to callers on mentioning their names, as did Rhoda to Peter on the night of his miraculous deliverance from prison. After you passed through the inner court, you would reach the various rooms of the house – the family room, the reception room, and the sleeping apartments. The apartments that were the most hidden from view were used by the ladies, and the innermost rooms were only used chiefly in winter because of the heat.
The furniture was much the same as that now in use. There were tables, couches, chairs, candlesticks, and lamps that varied in costliness according the the rank and wealth of the family. Some of the more luxurious items they may have had were rich cushions for the head and arms to relax on, ornaments, and sometimes even pictures. The doors, which moved on hinges fastened with wooden pins, were barred by wooden bolts, which could be withdrawn by check keys from the outside. The dining compartment was generally spacious, and was used for meetings much of the time.
In the same vein of carefulness, their police regulations prohibited open wells and pits, insufficient ladders, rickety stairs, even dangerous dogs about a house. Also, the houses were so close together that the Rabbis called them “the road of the roofs”. One could just hop from roof to roof without ever going into the houses. This could be especially easy for criminals to get away from the police.
This basically describes the arrangements and appearance of towns and dwellings in Palestine, but it was not any of the above mentioned outward things that gave a real picture of a Jewish home, even though they were different outwardly than other homes also. From the start, the rite of circumcision separated the Jew from the others around him and dedicated him to God. Private prayer, morning and evening, hallowed daily life, and family religion pervaded the home.
Before every meal they washed and prayed, and after the meal they gave thanks. Besides all these daily things, they had special feast days that every Jew was to stop work and celebrate in the olden ways. The return of the Sabbath sanctified the week of labor. It was welcomed as a time to rest and enjoy fellowship with God. As the head of the house returned on the Sabbath-eve from the synagogue to his home, he found it festively adorned, the Sabbath lamp brightly burning, and the table spread with the richest each household could afford. The head of the household blessed each child with the blessing of Israel, and the Sabbath was considered truly holy. The next evening, when the Sabbath light was put out, there was solemn separation made between the hallowed day and the regular work week. Then the next day, they went about their regular weekly duties. It’s true that as the years went on, the Rabbis added so many laws to the Ten Commandments, that it became an unbearable burden to know what one could and couldn’t do, and what did and didn’t constitute work. At the end, this wonderful ritual became just an external show of the Sabbath because of all the extra laws they had made.
The stranger, the poor, the widow, or the fatherless were not forgotten. They were fully provided for, and were not considered a burden but a privilege. They were each treated well because they were each considered brethren and fellow-citizens of Jerusalem.
Even as their houses and worship were different, also the family relationships that they had with each other were extremely different from the heathen people around them. The relationship in which God represented himself to them also gave sacredness to the bond which they developed with their parents and offspring. They felt that a child could do nothing worse than not honoring his father and mother.
In the Talmud, there are strict details that lay down rules about what a son is bound to do for his father: “a son is bound to feed his father, to give him drink, to clothe him, to protect him, to lead him in, and to conduct him out, and to wash his face, his hands, and his feet”. The general state of Jewish society also showed that parents watched fondly over the children, and when the parents got old, the children paid them back for what they had done by doing the same for them. If a child had not done this for his parents, it would have created an uproar of horror in the Jewish society. God had handed down severe punishment for people who did not follow these rules, but it seems that most of the people were happy to look after their parents and children, and just naturally considered it a privilege to do so.
The Rabbinical ordinances also specified the obligation of parents for their younger children. A son was considered independent whenever he could gain his own living, although a daughter remained in the power of her father till marriage. She could not, after she was of age, though, be given away to another without her own consent of her own free will. A father could only chastise his child while they were still young, and even then it could not be so severe as to destroy the child’s self-respect. To be a grown-up child, though, was strictly forbidden, and one could be excommunicated from the Jewish faith for doing so.
Properly speaking, the Jewish law limited the absolute obligation of a father to feed, clothe, and house his child to his sixth year, after which he could only be admonished to it as one of the duties of love, but not legally constrained to do so. In case of the separation of the parents, the mother had charge of the daughters, and the father of the sons. The sons could be given to the mother if a judge considered it in the best interest of the child, though.
When one of them asked what the difference was between a prophet and an old man, they were told: “A prophet is like an ambassador, whom you believe in consequence of his royal credentials; but an ancient is one whose word you receive without requiring such evidence.” And it was strictly taught that proper outward marks of respect should be shown to old age, such as to rise in the presence of older men, not to occupy their seats, to answer them modestly, and to assign to them the uppermost places at feasts.
It is with great shame, though, that what started out as a wonderful thing turned out to be just like a noose around the people’s necks. Their traditionalism, in its worship to the letter, turned out to destroy the spirit of the Divine Law. Then when Jesus did come and try to give them something better, they would not accept it because of their traditionalism.
Below is a model of what a traditional Jewish home may have looked like. Much of their work seems to have been done outside the house.
The interior of a very small house may have looked something like the picture below. These houses were only about 8 feet X 10 feet, so most everything had to be done outside. They would only have been for the extremely poor to live in, and would have just had the bare necessities inside.